Many knew Roman Totenberg as a renowned violinist, others as a mentor. Totenberg, a College of Fine Arts professor emeritus, died Tuesday morning at age 101 after suffering kidney failure.
Jill, one of Totenberg’s three daughters, said she recalls him enjoying a glass of vodka on one of his final days.
“He was not eating or drinking anything, and I said to him, ‘Daddy, would you like a vodka?’ and his head shook yes,” she said. “He took two large gulps out of the shot glass and looked so happy. It was just who he was. He enjoyed every part of life and every sip right until the end.”
She also described her father as amazingly personable.
“Anybody who met him immediately fell in love with him,” she said. “He had this graciousness and openness that made everyone feel extremely special.”
Totenberg, who was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1911, began taking violin lessons at age six, according to a biography on his website. He performed on the streets in Revolution-era Russia and performed to help feed his family.
Totenberg fled to Paris in 1932, as Adolf Hitler rose to power. After numerous tours across the world, he moved to the United States
Joining the BU faculty in 1961, Totenberg taught violin and eventually became chairman of the string department.
Totenberg had three daughters, including Jill, president and CEO of The Totenberg Group, a communications and marketing firm; Nina, a correspondent for National Public Radio; and Amy, a U.S. District Court judge.
Nina described her father and his teaching style as “receptive” and kind.
“He really was the gentlest and most receptive of souls,” Nina said. “He would always pat boys and girls on the cheek as if to say ‘you count, it’s alright.’”
CFA Dean Benjamín Juárez said Totenberg was familiar with influential musicians such as Igor Stravinsky and Arthur Rubinstein as well as older composers.
“He had direct connections to the great writers of the 19th century, and through his students who are some of the most prominent violinists of our time,” Juárez said. “He has a very big presence in the 21st century. He’s a rare artist that really bridges three centuries.”
Totenberg committed much of his life to teaching at BU and improving its musical programs. World-renowned violinists such as Mira Wang and Yevegny Kutik studied with Totenberg
“I think that his greatest contribution [to the BU community is his love for music, how even after he turned 100, he was still an active member of our faculty,” Juárez said. “His love for music and teaching was present to his very last hours.”
Nina said she hopes people remember her father for both his personality and talent.
“I hope people remember both his violin virtuosity and his great musicianship and his devotion to his students,” she said.
Jill said people could learn how to live from her father’s legacy.
“I’d like them to remember him for his generosity and generosity of spirit,” she said. “It’s a quality so many people don’t have today. It would be a great lesson for many people to have.”
Juárez said he will miss his personal relationship with Totenberg.
“Meeting him and going regularly to visit him at home and to share a glass of wine or a glass of vodka with him was really a very precious gift and I will always keep him very close to my heart and as a role model of what a life in music can look like,” he said.
A BU memorial service will be held for Totenberg sometime around September, Juárez said, when his former students and friends can be organized to attend.